A birder’s best friend is their binoculars. Without them, most birders feel naked! But what should you be considering when it comes time to either buy your first pair, or to upgrade your existing kit?
With binoculars, the old cliché of ‘you get what you pay for’ is generally true. It may be tempting to just go for the ‘el-cheapos’ on OneDayOnly, but the reality is that they are probably badly made, will give you a headache looking through them, and break within a year.
A good pair of binoculars should last you a lifetime if they are treated properly, and should be treated as an investment. The general rule of thumb is that you should buy the best you can afford and look after them. Some brands offer lifetime guarantees, such as Vortex and Swarovski Optik. And, talking of brands, going with an established brand is usually the safer route as you will have a guarantee of quality. Swarovski Optik, ZEISS, and Leica are generally regarded as the top 3 but are pricier, while others such as Vortex, Lynx, Kowa, the Nikon Monarch series, the Bushnell Legend series, and others provide a more budget-friendly route into great quality binoculars.
2. Take them for a test drive
It is useful to do your internet research, but the reality is that everyone’s eyes and preferences are different, and it is difficult to know if you will really like a pair of binoculars until you look through them. Whenever possible, try arrange to get some in your hands before deciding. It is not only the looking that counts, but also the feel. Are they too heavy for you? Too big? Too small? Too angular? You can’t know this until you try it.
3. Durability and service
These two qualities go a long way to ensuring your binoculars have a long life. Good construction is key, as binoculars are usually put through some rough conditions like dust, water exposure, and general wear and tear. Plastic is cheaper but also more breakable and wears quicker, so if you can afford it make sure to buy durable binos. Then, local service can also be a godsend when things go wrong. Brands like Vortex and Swarovski Optik have lifetime guarantees and back this up with incredible service in South Africa through their local agent, Whylo Distributors. Others don’t have a local agent, and there is nowhere to turn when things go wrong or parts break. This should be factored into your decision.
4. Magnification, lens diameter and field of view
When you are dealing with binoculars, there are a few technical specs that you should be comfortable with. The first two are the two numbers that appear front and centre: magnification, followed by objective lens diameter. Magnification is usually 8x, 10x (with few pairs at 12x or 20x) and diameter is usually 32, 40, 42, or 50. The numbers are written as a combination, e.g. 10x 42. The magnification is a measure of how ‘close’ to something you will appear. The objective lens diameter gives an indication of how big the binoculars are likely to be as well as light transmission. The general rule is that a larger objective lens lets in more light, but it is not also always true that a bigger objective lens leads to heavier binoculars as this is determined by construction and materials. Light transmission is also affected greatly by the coatings applied to the lenses and the quality of the glass used (and this is where high-end brands really outperform, in my opinion). Higher magnification may seem like an obvious benefit, but that is not always true. Being too close to a subject makes it difficult to find it in the view, while any shake of your hands or wind is magnified more the higher the magnification. For these reasons, many birders who spend more time in forests prefer lower magnification binoculars and prioritize excellent light transmission, whereas the opposite is true for open land birding. The last number you should be aware of is field of view, which is usually measured as the width of your vision at 1000 yards. The higher this is, the wider your vision is and the easier it is to find your subjects.
The four points above are good guidelines, but, in reality, there are so many more things to consider. I recommend watching the specialist optics webinar given by Dale Forbes (Swarovski Optik) and Andrew Whysall (Whylo Distributors, the Swarvoski Optik agent in South Africa) at the African Bird Fair 2021, which you can catch here or on the video below.
And remember, you can buy binoculars (and everything else a birder needs/wants!) at BirdLife South Africa’s online shop, shop.birdlife.org.za.